Let’s be blunt. The Pittsburgh Penguins created a perfectly safe and useable taxi squad filled with two goalies and useable borderline NHL to complement their 23-player roster. Like a good hot chocolate after sled riding, and a blanket at night, they chose warmth and safety, but Nathan Legare was absent.
They missed a physical, wicked wrista, big opportunity.
Though I and some of you were intrigued by physical agitator Jordan Nolan on a checking line, we can forgive the Penguins for passing on the 31-year-old journeyman with Stanley Cup experience. He’ll be around in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton if they need him, and Colton Sceviour had a very good camp.
No, the opportunity the Penguins whiffed on was the inclusion and further development of 2019 third-round pick Nathan Legare.
As part of the Pittsburgh Penguins housecleaning on Monday, they finalized their roster, demoted a few expected players, filled the taxi squad, but in the process returned 2019 first-round pick Sam Poulin and Legare to their junior teams.
Poulin didn’t have a great camp. After sinking in Team Canada camp, Poulin was largely invisible for the nine-day camp, including four intrasquad scrimmages.
Legare, 19, got stronger. And stronger as camp progressed. There was the Day 2 spark in which he and his buddy Poulin engaged in a semi-physical puck battle. Legare found some juice and later cracked 6-foot-5 Radim Zohorna with a pretty stiff reverse check.
Legare’s offense began to emerge, too. In the game simulation, his transition game put him in the right spot to earn a breakaway. Later, he created a turnover on a backcheck and fed Evgeni Malkin a delicious dish near the goal.
Malkin finished it, too.
Sources from Baie-Comeau Drakkar, where Legare played until the pandemic forced the QMJHL to pause after 15 games this season (Legare was traded to Val d’Or Foreurs during the current pause, told PHN the Penguins regularly sent video to Legare and his juniors coaches.
The Penguins wanted him to a more upright skating style rather than the hunched, hip turning style, which created a lot of wasted motion. Based on camp, it appears the heavy wrist shot having, fearless hitting, crowd connecting kid with a big personality and C on his junior sweater listened.
A little bit about Nathan Legare: He was the captain of Baie-Comeau. His viral goal celebrations last season were not showing off but communing with the small-town fans. His “chest pump” celebration was, in fact, imitating the section of crazy fans who decided to be Vikings and “row the ship” along with the players. In the February goal celly, he rowed along with them.
That’s pretty cool.
PHN has talked with multiple people around Legare during the offseason and in the last few months. The kid has moxie. Whether it’s a hat tip to loyal fans or busting chops in an intrasquad scrimmage, Legare has an “it” factor.
Our first video review of Legare, including that celly, did not go well. With prospects, things should change, and they have.
However, rather than hang around on the Penguins taxi squad for a couple of weeks or longer based on the increasing unlikelihood of the QMJHL being able to refire in the Quebec province this month, the juniors assignment means Legare will be without hockey until the Q does restart.
Would the organization have been irreparably harmed by putting Anthony Angello in the AHL and keeping Legare on the taxi squad? The team kept Drew O’Connor on the squad, as well as P-O Joseph.
The inclusion of those two NHL neophytes who have not yet played their first NHL game is a good boost to the Pittsburgh Penguins prospect pool. Both were solid in camp, and Joseph flashed the skills which made him the Arizona Coyotes first-round pick in 2017.
The taxi squad won’t see competitive action unless a substantial number of injuries or the virus comes calling. Head coach Mike Sullivan also clarified the separation of the taxi squad and the full team.
“We’re certainly going to include them in the learning process and how our team evolves throughout the course of the year from a strategy standpoint and making sure they stay up to speed…” Sullivan said. “…having said that, we’re going to keep them separated from the group (to limit cross infection possibilities).”
But being part of the taxi squad will keep those players on the ice, even if it’s not in a full NHL team capacity.
Instead, Nathan Legare will be left to train at home or with a select few players before QMJHL camps begin again if they do.
Back in July, the Penguins missed a chance to include Poulin in the bubble. He was on his game and was solid in a pair of scrimmages. However, he took a step back and was not a strong candidate to keep on the squad. Legare, on the other hand, took a step forward.
The Pittsburgh Penguins missed a chance to further develop a kid who could well be a 15-20 goal third liner with some jam. It was a tough call, and Sullivan didn’t make a mistake so much as miss a bigger opportunity.